Robotics and the construction industry

Robotics and the construction industry

We see the construction industry becoming more and more digital every day, with technologies such as BIM and VR becoming more and more common in everyday construction. We have also seen the increased use of drones and remote monitoring technology.

Compared to sectors such as manufacturing, retail and agriculture the construction industry is one of the least automated industries, relying on manual labour. But as we move forward in the digital age will we see an increase in the use of robotics in the construction industry?

It seems that recently all we hear about in the UK construction industry is the skills shortage. This staffing shortage is leading to limited construction activity and rising labour costs. The Charted Institute of Building has reported that the industry needs to find 157,000 new recruits by 2021 in order to keep up with demand. One way the government hope to tackle this shortage is through increased apprenticeships.

Robotics in construction

An alternative and potentially controversial solution could be found in robotics. When compared to industries such as manufacturing and agriculture, which have embraced robotics in certain roles, the construction industry is struggling. These industries have grown in productivity in recent years whereas construction continues to be understaffed and over budget globally.

Could this be down to inefficient processes and how can robotics help this?

The main reason, people would argue, that construction hasn’t embraced the robotic movement is that a large number of construction tasks take great skill, which is hard to automate. Another is the unpredictability of a construction site.

The nature of robotics means that robots work best at repetitive tasks in controlled environments. Construction sites are often not very controlled environments, for robotics to work for construction robots would need to be able to automatically adapt in real-time. Do we have the technology to make robotics a viable solution for the construction industry?

Robotics in construction

One example of robotic technology that can work on a busy construction site has been developed by Komatsu. They have built an unmanned bulldozer automation system assisted by a multi-purpose drone. The drone, flying above the construction site, will monitor deliveries, inventory and overall progress as well as create a 3D map of the site. This map is then fed to the bulldozer system so that it can navigate the site and perform scheduled demolitions without issue.

Robotics could also help the industry save time and money on site, leaving the robots to handle the more mundane, repetitive jobs. For example an American company in Colorado have been making use of a brick-laying robot. The Semi-Automated Mason (SAM) can lay 3,000 bricks in an eight-hour shift. The robot uses a conveyor belt and robotic arm. This technology can then free staff up to tackle more technical jobs.

Robotics in construction

This kind of technology could also be useful for road laying and maintenance, reducing disruption to popular travel routes.

3D printing can also help speed a job along. Chinese company WinSun have developed a 3D printer with a robotic arm which can create large, structurally sound, structures all in one go. WinSun claim that they can make 10 single story houses in one day with this technology.

3D printing can also be used for repairs and maintenance work as well as on structures such as bridges. The first 3D printed bridge has been built in the Netherlands.

Robotics in construction

It’s true, robotics could be an answer to the construction skills shortage in the UK. Robots can complete more dangerous and mundane tasks and allow workers time to focus on more advanced aspects of a project. Despite this robotics in construction remains a controversial topic. Some fear that the introduction of robots would lead to job losses where others argue that it would create future opportunities for different kinds of work.

What is your opinion? Is investment in robotics a viable option for the construction industry in the UK? Let us know on LinkedIn

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